The Earthly City

Can Augustine Save Our Politics?

“What has Washington to do with Jerusalem?” After eight years of faith-based hubris and folly under George W. Bush, “far too much” would be one answer to Charles Mathewes’s opening question in A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge University Press, $37.99, 384 pp.). Yet political life without religion seems at least as unappealing.

Enthralled by something called “globalization” (a silly word: capitalism was always global), our political and cultural elites have sold us on the wonders of the world as a market. Low taxes, no unions, deregulation, “private” enterprise—a paradise of capital where the decisive question was, What’s good (or bad) for business? Any grander or more fraternal ambition was tree-hugging nonsense or utopian terror.

Like Mathewes, Eric Gregory, the author of Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (University of Chicago Press, $45, 384 pp.), wants us to want more than a republic of customer service. Radiant with hope and graced with erudition that never stiffens into pedantry, Mathewes and Gregory have written the seminal texts of political theology for a new generation of Christian intellectuals. Not since Jürgen Moltmann and Gustavo Gutiérrez have theologians been so ardent for the earthly city, so eager to bless its evanescent affairs as a site for redemptive action. Abounding with what Moltmann once called “a passion for the possible,” they invite us to envision a wider field of historical forces—namely faith, hope, and charity—and to enlarge the range of political possibility discernible in the light of grace.

Gregory, who teaches at Princeton, and Mathewes, a professor at the University of Virginia, reflect a current “postsecular” vogue among Western intellectuals. In this view, the consignment of religion to a “private” sphere has not fostered a more vibrant or rational public life. “Keeping religion out of politics” has, rather, alienated large numbers of citizens, while ratifying and concealing the cultural power of professional and managerial elites. Expressing their political hopes and positions in explicitly theological terms, Mathewes and Gregory engage instead in what the moral philosopher Jeffrey Stout has called “doing theology publicly.”

The theology they enlist is that of St. Augustine. Knowing that Augustine will arouse suspicion as a melancholy, intolerant conservative, they attempt to make him, like the gospel he loved, “ever ancient, ever new.” The Augustine who interests Mathewes and Gregory is not the hyper-penitent bore spinning moralism out of his hang-ups, nor the virtuoso of interiority so beloved by existentialists. Indebted to a new generation of Augustinian studies, Gregory and Mathewes contend that Augustine is the political philosopher of love. An Augustinian politics, they argue, must derive from the saint’s passionate conviction that love is the animating principle of the world. As a “work of love” (Mathewes), the world is a sacrament, a gift that bears the trademark of its creator. Both Mathewes and Gregory offer lucid accounts of how that love goes sinfully wrong, and of how distrust of God and of creation’s bounty becomes the lust for mastery, libido dominandi. The “earthly city” we erect from that lust is a perverted state of being, a disfigured facsimile of our heavenly home. Even in its most tragically misshapen forms, “love,” as Gregory observes, “is the key to understanding world history.”

As the more theoretically ambitious of the two, Mathewes bases his political theology on this sacramental account of the world. All creation longs for its creator, and human history is a record of that desire in all its magnificent and ignoble forms. As our politics always exhibits a yearning for divinity, “a true politics”—true, that is, to our thirst for God—is a “sacramental politics.” “Seeking the Beloved Community,” our desires for justice and solidarity stem from our “orientation toward communion.” In this time, in our city—“during the world,” as Mathewes puts it—our political affairs are a “proleptic realization of that eschatological communion.” Thus, Augustine can inspire, in Mathewes’s words, “a quite radical critique of the status quo.”

If Christian politics is a rehearsal of the Beloved Community, then faith, hope, and love are political virtues. As the confidence that life rests ultimately in God’s hands, not ours, faith enables us to remember that our victories and defeats are finite, and thus to reject the temptation to divinize our causes or communities. The eschaton will arrive, no matter how wretched or merely incompetent we happen to be. Mathewes suspects that much of the vitriol in our politics—even among Christians—stems, in the end, from a lack of faith, which propels us to force the eschaton and demonize our enemies. Modern totalitarianism isn’t the only form of eschatological impatience. Smashing the totems of “civility” and “responsible criticism,” Mathewes deftly chastises communitarians and civic republicans as well for their romance of consensus and “community.”

Hope emerges from faith and enables us to “act with the piety of the new,” Mathewes writes. By teaching us how to be “properly estranged from public life,” hope cultivates political endurance and nurtures an openness to the unexpected that keeps us both dynamic and humble. We actually fear hope, Mathewes muses, because we insist on remaining in control. Hope terrifies with the prospect of laying us open to failure, suffering, transformation, or death. A lack of hope either paralyzes or embitters political action.

As the greatest of all the political virtues, charity arises from trust. If we really believe that the world is charged with the grandeur of a loving God, then we should aim, Mathewes writes, at a “politics of joy” rooted deeply in the Eucharist. “Transfiguration” should be the mode of Christian political criticism. The eucharistic meal signifies the abundance that enables us to give without measure, and to eschew the anxiety to hold on to whatever we have.

Mathewes’s ambivalence about liberalism arises from his eucharistic conception of politics. He acknowledges that liberal societies grant believers latitudes impossible in preliberal orders—especially the right to remain unmolested after voicing any kind of unorthodoxy. Yet this negative liberty leaves Mathewes unsatisfied. Liberal theory, from Locke to Rawls, has been, Mathewes writes, “a theory about avoiding politics.” We are social beings. Yet liberals, imagining society as a “collection of solitudes,” see political life as the multiplication of spaces wherein we pursue our disparate interests with a minimum of friction. By this standard, a politics of joy becomes either a private affair or an invitation to totalitarian terror.

Mathewes’s critique of liberalism strikes me as tendentious and overwrought. Even he concedes that liberal theory cannot be taken as an account of really existing liberal societies, but he doesn’t give enough hopeful attention to the faith and charity still alive in the contemporary West. If it’s true, as he writes, that “church basements may just save us from bowling alone,” they can’t be quite as empty as many critics of liberalism would have us believe.

The most acerbic theological critics of liberalism have been the acolytes of “Radical Orthodoxy,” which has made an incalculable impact on contemporary Christian intellectual life. The movement has waged an aggressive campaign against Christian affirmation of liberal societies, pointing instead to the church as the genuine polis for orthodox Christians. For them, liberal modernity has been one long nightmare of heresy, nihilism, and violence. With its own moral and spiritual formation of liturgy, prayer, and fellowship, the church-as-polis becomes “the other city” (John Milbank) or a “social ethic” (Stanley Hauerwas).

Even Radical Orthodoxy’s fiercest critics concede its vigorous erudition. Still, its rhetorical excesses disturb both Mathewes and Gregory. To Mathewes, the champions of Radical Orthodoxy are ill-tempered eggheads, too contentious and dismissive to converse with anyone outside the ecclesial cognoscenti. Milbank, he writes, “cannot talk to his opponents; he can only talk about them.” Hauerwas and company parrot a “theatricalized rhetoric” studded with “bon mots about the state.” Their portrait of the church is sociologically unreal. These are not cavalier or unwarranted criticisms, but here I think Mathewes exhibits too little of that hermeneutic of charity he recommends to the rest of us. His own misgivings about liberalism, as well as his insistence on the primacy of theology, demonstrate his debts to Milbank and Hauerwas.

Gregory offers a keener and more charitable critique. He praises Hauerwas and Milbank’s concern to distinguish the gospel from liberal do-goodism. Still, like Mathewes, he fears that Radical Orthodox ecclesiology is an infatuation with an ideal. Besides, he reminds us, “the kingdom of God is much bigger than the church,” and “the world stands under the gospel judgment of Christ, not an eternal church.” Gregory also worries that Radical Orthodoxy’s antipathy to modernity tends to “strip the world of its created goodness.” Adroitly deploying some of Milbank’s own words, Gregory counters that if all human life can mediate grace and anticipate the eschaton, then even liberal modernity can partake of beatitude, however incompletely. “Liberal democracy is not the defeat of Christian witness,” Gregory insists.

Now that capitalism faces the greatest challenge to its stability since the 1930s, Christians might have a moment of possibility to seize. Do Gregory and Mathewes inspire a political theology of sufficient energy and magnitude? Two questions arise here. What is “politics” in today’s Christian political thought? Mathewes defines “public life” as the discussion of “matters of common concern,” but he never really specifies what those are. Moreover, public life, for Mathewes, appears monopolized by the institutions of the liberal nation-state. The state, he maintains, “is the overwhelming fact about most modern societies, and especially about civic life.” He’s wrong: The corporation is the overwhelming fact about most modern societies.

With a truly unprecedented sway in American life, corporate power is the greatest threat to a vibrant public culture. The “privatization” of public services from Baghdad to New Orleans is yet another sign that the American state has become a franchise of corporate capital. And corporate capital owns the media, which set the boundaries of public discussion and political imagination. So if the means of material and cultural production are “matters of common concern,” the institutions of labor and culture belong in the political realm.

For all his visionary flourish, Mathewes falls short of the “radical critique of the status quo” he assures us Augustinian politics can provide. For one thing, he seems minimalist (on principle) about the prospects of Christian politics. Though welcoming non-Christians as “fellow travelers,” he regrets that, because of fundamental differences, any alliances will be “quite few and far between.” And he can’t bring himself even to use the word “capitalism,” relying instead on euphemisms like “marketization” and “consumer society.” (New rule: Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism.) When he upholds the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe as his models for a “politics of joy,” he forgets that many of them ushered in liberal democracy—the very scheme for avoiding politics that he previously rejected. As for Gregory, the subtitle of his book is “democratic citizenship,” but he writes about liberalism as if it were indissolubly attached to democracy, if not identical with it.

Liberalism and democracy are not identical, and neither are democracy and capitalism. Neither—though here the relation is closer—are capitalism and liberalism. Modern democracy arose in a nexus of liberal politics and capitalist economics, but that doesn’t mean that common deliberation on decisions affecting a community—which I take to be the definition of democracy—is inseparable from them. Indeed, because liberals and capitalists have long defined freedom as bound up with property and money, they have often acted to enfeeble or even terminate a thriving democratic life, especially when democracies have acted to limit the political power of property.

A desire to put democracy on different foundations has abided throughout modernity. For close to two centuries, the chief name of that desire was “socialism”; and regardless of whether the name or the program survives, the desire persists, and will grow even more urgent in the arriving epoch of economic and ecological turbulence. “Socialism” included an array of attempts to extend democratic control over property, the distribution of wealth, and the design and purpose of productive technology. Unlike their Marxist or other secular counterparts, Christian socialists insisted that the imago Dei must be the measure of revolutionary action, which meant that socialism must be a struggle over the ends as well as the means of production. Perhaps under another name, that conviction should be honored and revived; and especially now, any worthwhile political theology must re-open the question of property and wealth—which is to say, of capitalism.

If Mathewes gives us a sacramental theology in which to address these issues, Gregory gestures, somewhat hesitantly, toward a sacramental kind of politics. Gregory is more optimistic about the prospects for political alliances with non-Christians. He’s bored by “stale” canards about the “untranslatability” of Christian beliefs, and hints that they promote a narcissism of small differences that paralyzes political action. (I suspect that they also act as insulation against scrutiny or correction.) Calling for “a more ambitious political practice,” Gregory unashamedly asserts that its goal must be a “more just, more egalitarian, and more charitable” society.

While other reviewers have emphasized his reliance on feminist theory, it’s at least as suggestive and promising that Gregory turns to liberation theology, particularly in the figures of Gustavo Gutiérrez and Martin Luther King Jr. Despite a nervous disclaimer that he’s not lifting Gutiérrez up as any kind of model, Gregory prefaces his lavish praise for King with a defense of the Peruvian Dominican. Gutiérrez and his comrades are not, Gregory shows, mere Marxists in theological drag. Rooted firmly in incarnational theology, Gutiérrez affirms charity as “the center of the Christian life” and anoints “the neighbor [as] a sacrament of God.” King, Gregory argues, occupied the same theological ground. If King’s “beloved community” is, as Gregory insists, far more than John Rawls’s “well-ordered society,” then, like Gutiérrez, King “can hardly be contained within the dominant forms of contemporary liberal theory.”

And yet Gregory tries to housebreak the noblest lion of the American social-gospel tradition. Hailing King as “the great Augustinian liberal of modernity,” he obscures one of the best-kept open secrets of recent American history: King’s espousal of democratic socialism. Thanks to the ideological climate of the cold war, King was forced to mute or dissemble his debts to the secular and religious socialist traditions. To put it in terms that both Gregory and Mathewes might respect but decline to affirm: both King and Gutiérrez realized that property was the limit of both democracy and charity—and therefore that liberalism, whatever its virtues, could not be the limit of Christian political vision.

Exhausted, or indifferent, most religious intellectuals over the past thirty years failed to envision an alternative to the tyranny of money. The current economic crisis provides a moment to do penance for that sin of omission. Looking beyond the neoliberal consensus, we need to imagine—and plan for—another kind of political economy, one that reminds us and others that Christianity is a revolutionary movement, not a gospel of wealth or a civil religion that deifies our achievements.

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About the Author

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.